Skip to content

“Obsessive passion”: The surprising links between OCD and radicalization

People who score high in “obsessive passion” can become rigidly consumed by ideological causes — sometimes dangerously so.
A man waving an american flag in front of a group of people.
Far-right activist waves flag during US Capitol breach in 2021.
Michael Nigro / Pacific Press/ LightRocket / Getty Images
Key Takeaways
  • Most research shows that environmental factors like oppression and injustice, rather than individual factors like personality or mental disorders, lead to radicalization and political violence.
  • But recent work finds surprising links between symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), obsessive passion for one’s political or religious identity, and radical intentions.
  • Results were consistent for environmental activists, Democrats, Republicans, and Muslims. Large-scale interventions to address OCD symptoms could potentially help target a root cause of terrorism.

Mental problems are commonly blamed for extremist violence—radicals and terrorists appear by definition to be selfish psychopaths. Yet research finds that no single psychological profile leads to violent extremism. And while depression is sometimes correlated with political violence, these links are not always reliable and may only occur when combined with environmental factors like recent life stressors. Instead, most research finds that radicalization and political violence stem from environmental factors like marginalization, oppression, and perceived injustice.

“Clinical traits that might seem obvious are actually often unrelated,” Jaïs Adam-Troïan, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Heriot-Watt University, told Big Think. “So for a long time, researchers assumed that mental health was unimportant for predicting political violence.”

That is, until recently. Work by Adam-Troïan and his colleague Jocelyn Bélanger (2023), Assistant Teaching Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, finds that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) symptoms are reliably linked with political violence intentions. 

Yes, the same disorder associated with washing your hands until they bleed or checking the stove nine times before bed is also correlated with extremism and political violence. 

A little background on obsessions

OCD is not normally associated with extremism or violence. The disorder—characterized by strong, uncontrollable thoughts and urges—is a maladaptive coping mechanism. It causes patients significant distress and rarely eradicates the underlying anxiety or belief. But usually, these thoughts and behaviors are nonviolent. A prototypical person with OCD, for example, might be extremely afraid of getting into an accident and feel a compulsion to follow a specific time-consuming (and unreasonable) routine to ignore or suppress their fear.

But Adam-Troïan and Bélanger noticed some similarities between OCD and what researchers call obsessive passion (OP), which relates to political or religious activities. Unlike harmonious passion (HP), which allows for flexibility in when and how to help one’s cause, OP is rigid and makes it difficult for people to consider alternatives. People high in OP tie their sense of self-worth to their cause. They are so consumed with their cause that it conflicts with other life goals like social relationships and work. 

Whereas HP predicts nonviolent political activism, OP predicts radicalization and support for violent political behaviors. “Harmonious passion is consistent with functional, proportional behavior, like street demonstrations or defending oneself when needed,” explained Adam-Troïan. “Obsessive passion, on the other hand, appears to relate to pathological and unhelpful behavior, like disproportionate retaliation and torture.”

And because both OP and OCD involve cognitive rigidity, self-regulatory deficiencies, and a sense of losing control, Adam-Troïan and Bélanger hypothesized that people with higher OCD symptoms might be more likely to experience obsessive passion and in turn violent intentions.

Obsessive passion

The researchers recruited 1,120 US citizens online who had previously identified as environmental activists, Democrats, Republicans, or Muslims. Participants filled out surveys about their ideology including:

  • level of passion, both harmonious and obsessive (e.g., how much “My involvement in the Democratic Party is the only thing that really captivates me.”)
  • activism support, both violent and non-violent (e.g., how much they agree with “doing risky or illegal actions to prevent [the other political party] from winning the next election.”)
  • OCD symptoms (e.g., “Time spent on obsessions” and “Distress from compulsions.)

They also reported other factors that might be relevant, like commitment, depression, and gender. 

Across all groups, people who reported higher levels of OCD symptoms also reported higher levels of OP and support for radical activism, but not peaceful activism. These relationships were substantial: Compared to people with low OCD and OP, people with high OCD symptoms and OP reported nearly twice as high scores in radical intention. 

“I was surprised by the weight of the differences,” said Adam-Troias. “In social psychology, we often view violence as provoked, but this shows the importance of proactive motivation to engage in violence.”

Because the data was collected at the same time and is correlational, they cannot establish whether OCD causes OP, or vice versa, or whether some third factor is involved.  However, mediation analysis, which statistically evaluates how well the data fits certain models, supported the hypothesis that OCD symptoms lead to OP (rather than OP leading to OCD), which in turn affects radical endorsements. Moreover, these relationships held even after controlling for anxiety, depression, commitment, substance use, childhood experiences, loss of significance, and gender. 

Potential treatments

In short, OCD predicts obsessive passion, which in turn appears to predict endorsement of violent activism. This holds across different political and religious groups, and after controlling for other relevant factors like depression and commitment. 

This helps explain why only a small proportion of people who face injustice engage in radical behavior. “Most people, even if they are strongly committed to their causes, only endorse functional, goal-oriented behavior,” explains Adam-Troias. “But high levels of OCD symptoms may impair self-regulation and compel people to behave in ways they would normally consider horrific.” 

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

Interestingly, Adam-Troias pointed out, people with OCD generally find their obsessions and the resulting compulsive behavior distressing. So people with OCD may be more willing to change their OCD-related symptoms rather than their political or religious values and beliefs. He hopes future research will examine whether OCD treatments—like teaching people skills for how to effectively respond to threats and how to separate emotions from behavior—may reduce OP and extremist violence.

Many people with high levels of OCD symptoms may not be diagnosed or receiving treatment. So large-scale campaigns targeting the general population may be needed. For example, researchers have had some success with online interventions and mass media education-entertainment shows to reduce other problematic behaviors like hate speech and violence against women. 

“It’s really hard to change someone’s core beliefs and values,” Adam-Troias says. “But we do have effective treatments for OCD.” 

By furthering our understanding of what leads to political violence—whether terrorizing innocent civilians, bombing government buildings, or torturing prisoners of war—we may one day be able to stop such abhorrent behavior at its source. 


Up Next